There is something magical about Christmas time, something which is universal in its appeal.
At a human level there is the natural excitement of the young (and not so young) at decorating the house; buying and receiving presents; visiting Christmas trees and cribs in our city centres; taking time off work and eating good food and (occasionally) watching good TV!
All in all it’s justly been called “the most wonderful time of the year.”
But Christmas is also the cruellest of times. For families who have lost a loved one at this time of year it can be an ordeal to get through rather than a season to enjoy.
Our own city of Glasgow has had two years of overwhelming tragedy to cope with in the shadow of the Christmas lights. This year my thoughts and prayers will, in a very special way, be with the families of all who suffered in the Clutha and Queen Street tragedies.
And looking around us, as the world reels from terror attacks, we could be forgiven for despairing. Pope Francis even went as far as saying that Christmas festivities could seem a “charade”.
He said: “We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes, all decked out, while the world continues to wage war… The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”
It’s a sobering thought, and one which, at a human level troubles us. What are we to do in the face of so much sorrow, conflict and pain around us?
The answer is not to be found in glib phrases on Twitter, nor is it to be discovered by scouring the world’s libraries in search of a philosophy which will give us all the answers.
Rather the answer is to be found in the crib. There, if we care enough to look - not only with our eyes but with our imagination and memory and heart - we see a child shivering in a smelly, humiliating cave, with parents anxious and troubled about his future. At a human level it is a pitiful sight. But with the eyes of faith it is the scene which lightens our heart and gives us reason to hope.
Emmanuel – literally God is with us – is the only key to understanding the brightness and shadows of this Christmas season. For if God is with us, if God (to use the imagery of St John Paul II) has broken through space and time to enter our world - even though the times seem frightening and the omens dark, we have the promise of something greater than the light of the Christmas tree or the parcelled up gift of socks or gloves.
We have the light of hope for us and our loved ones, and the gift of eternal life if we choose to accept it.
For those reasons I continue to say with confidence – have a happy and holy Christmas.